AS the crisis situation engulfs the Gulf region once again, the world witnesses emergence of blocs and alliances. The diplomatic cut off between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and UAE has come shortly after the unity and power display at Riyadh Summit. The three Gulf countries and Egypt have accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and destabilizing the region. Qatar which shares its border only with Saudi Arabia has rejected the accusations, calling them “unjustified” and “baseless.” However, the timing of this sudden and drastic political sanctioning of Qatar is viewed as unprecedented with numerous implications for the already fragile regional security order.
With airspace closed, imports stopped at borders, Qatari expatriates expelled from neighboring and regional countries, it is suspected that Qatar could face an acute economic plight for its reliance on Gulf neighbors for almost 80 percent of food imports alongside the extensive detouring of its flights. In the series of events, Turkey has regarded the isolation moves against Qatar ‘a grave mistake’ which is ‘inhumane and against Islamic values’. Like Iran, Russia has also voiced support and called for ‘constructive’ dialogue. On the role and stance of US, there is a clear dichotomy visible.
President Trump seems to endorse the Gulf States’ action in a series of tweets. It was added that his talks with Saudi Arabia and other nations during Summit have ‘already paid off” after leaders have said to take a ‘hard line on funding extremism.’ While, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his statement has called for immediate steps to be taken to de-escalate the situation and put forth a good faith effort to resolve the grievances they have with each other. It was also urged that Gulf States must ease their blockade of Qatar as it could have ‘humanitarian consequences’ and a possible impact on the United States’ military efforts in the region as well.
As a solution to the problem and resumption of relations, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have asked for the expulsion of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and shutting down Al-Jazeera network which are pretty big things to ask for. Meanwhile, it is important to note that the list does not include the demand for Qatar to cut off its ties with Iran. Analysts believe that Qatar-Gulf crisis dates back to historic times, negating the newly founded references of terrorism as the only reason. But given the strategic and security concerns of Saudi Arabia, there exists an opinion that the current cut off with Qatar might backfire. With support of Turkey, Russia and most importantly Iran, there are chances of a new alliance emerging in a region, one with different objectives from the US. Such an alliance could strengthen Iran’s position in the region, the least Saudi Arabia wants. But at the same time, the question arises that would Qatar be able to withstand immense pressures coming from its larger neighboring in the Gulf region and extra-regional powers? Well, uncertainty stands a chance here.
More so, while President Trump states Qatar as a high-level funder of terrorism, the Unites States’ Defense Secretary James Mattis has signed a deal reportedly worth US$12 billion to sell F-15 fighter jets to Doha. As the confusion prevails over the US stance, there are concerns associated with the presence and maintenance of US Central Command regional forward base and airfield operating in Qatar as well. Will any open rift with Qatar bring up a downside?
For Pakistan, Qatar crisis presents a complex equation. As Saudi Arabia questions Pakistan’s intention, the situation brings forwards a test case for Pakistan’s diplomatic brain and maneuvering. Taking sides in the crisis could have critical implications as for now; great powers on both sides have a crucial role to play. The word of ‘calm’ used by states is one wisely mainstreamed but the statements clearly tell which power backs whom. More so, as Gulf sees Pakistan as a prospective member of military alliance, it is time for Pakistan to make decisions with measured calculations and steps.
With few policy options at hand to deal with the crisis, it is basically the visions and interests of various stakeholders that diverge. The escalation of Qatar crisis could only lead to increased rift in the Gulf region specifically when the states are aiming to form a military alliance. Besides, Qatar strategic value, resource richness and multi-billion dollars investment across the world are key factors which could impact the decision-making at the regional level. With blocs and alliances emerging, the risk is certainly greater specifically when the region is already under turmoil.
— The writer is Assistant Research Officer, Islamabad Policy Research Institute, a think-tank based in Islamabad.